Nada Saya is running away
Tanzanian shows Koreans the ropes
By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/17/2003
''People think I am an American basketball player,'' John Nada Saya says. ''Same face.''
But not the same game. Nada Saya, who makes his Hopkinton-to-Boston debut at high noon Monday, does his running in a straight line in a little less than 2 hours 9 minutes. Back in Tanzania, where most major marathons are televised, nobody confuses him for an itinerant roundballer. But in Korea, where Nada Saya was the first foreign elite runner to take to the roads two summers ago, he's still something of a novelty.
All that will change, of course, if Nada Saya beats the rest of the field to Copley Square. Winning a marathon is one thing. Winning Boston, as his training partner Lee Bong Ju did two years ago, makes a runner a household name anywhere there's a strip of blacktop.
No Tanzanian has ever managed it, although Juma Ikangaa came achingly close here three straight times in 1988-89-90. If Nada Saya prevails, he not only gets the laurel wreath, the silver loving cup, the $80,000 first prize, a $20,000 bonus from his corporate sponsor, and an automatic ticket to this summer's world championships in Paris, he also gets a few bonus weeks off to see his wife, Victoria, and their two young daughters.
The usual deal is one month off, 11 months on with the Samsung Electronics Athletic Club, where Nada Saya is the only non-Korean on the eight-member men's marathon team. During the ''on'' months, Nada Saya can be anywhere from China to New Zealand to Colorado to New Mexico, as the team seeks the optimum combination of altitude and weather.
That's why Victoria and the girls stay home in their spacious new house in hilly Arusha, not far from Kilimanjaro, while daddy John chases cash and fame six time zones away. ''It is very hard, but I tell my wife this is business,'' says the 24-year-old Nada Saya, whose father is a maize farmer. ''Maybe this year my family can come to Korea.''
He might have remained a middle-range name making middling money doing half-marathons if Samsung hadn't come calling midway through 2001. The Koreans wanted to build a world-class team but had nobody to keep pace with Lee, who was literally a mile or two ahead of his mates. ''The other runners cannot follow him,'' says team manager Cho Duk Ho.
So Samsung decided to do as the Japanese were doing with their Kenyan connection, and get themselves an African whippet or two to push Lee and pull their youngsters along with him. The coaches rifled through a stack of resumes and invited nine prospects to a tryout camp in Albuquerque.
The most promising turned out to be Nada Saya, who had run a 1:01:19 half-marathon and had just placed third in the Berlin 25K. But it wasn't just a road warrior the Koreans were looking for. They wanted a Seoul man, that rare foreigner who could walk off a plane and into their culture, kim chi and all. ''We put some Korean food in front of him,'' says Cho, grinning at the memory of Nada Saya's chopsticks working double time, ''and he ate all of it.''
For Nada Saya, the lure of the Land of the Morning Calm went beyond fistfuls of won, which exchange nicely for Tanzanian shillings. It was a chance to make a splash on the global stage, ''To be a big name,'' he says. ''Like Lee and [Khalid] Khannouchi.''
Once Nada Saya adjusted to Seoul's fast-forward pace (''There are many, many cars here,'' he told Cho during the expressway ride in), the transition went nicely. He found a way to communicate with his teammates -- three Lees, a Park, a Kim, a Chung, and a Huh -- through a blend of pidgin Korenglish with a heavy dose of body language. The food was no problem. ''I like it,'' Nada Saya says. ''It is a little different, but the rice is the same.''
And the clock needs no interpreter. Once he hung up a 2:08:57 that December in Milan, beating Boston victors Moses Tanui and Joseph Chebet and chopping five minutes off his previous best, Nada Saya proved he could run with the planetary aces.
He was ready to tackle Boston last year, but Lee was returning to defend his title and Samsung didn't want to use both its top guns in the same race. So Nada Saya went to Turin and placed fourth in a creditable 2:11:12. When Lee signed up for last weekend's London race, Nada Saya got the nod for Boston, which he knew only by reputation and VCR.
Lee, whose Boston victory Nada Saya watched at home on TV, gave him the lowdown on the roller-coaster course. ''He said after 30 kilometers, there are hills,'' Nada Saya says. The rest he checked out by watching a videotape. Except for the traditional prerace tour, the first time Nada Saya sets foot on the course will be the first time he runs it for real.
When he does, he says, ''all of Tanzania will be watching on TV'' and half the populace, it seems, likely will be watching at Nada Saya's house. ''John is running Monday?'' friends have been asking his wife. ''Not Sunday?''
Not here. In Boston, marathon day is Monday, as it's been since 1969. Not that Nada Saya will be hard to spot. He'll be the guy fending off a crowd of Kenyans with chopsticks.
. . .
This story ran on page C11 of the Boston Globe on 4/17/2003.